Jim Brouwer, Paul Emery, Joe Gilmore, Tom Knapp, Ed Martin and Alex Peverett.
25 May 2002, The Crypt, Leeds Town Hall.
Poulenc is a live interpretation of Francis Poulenc's religious choral and organ work Litanies à la Vierge Noir (1936). The original work consists of a series of prayers to Mary and was composed after the composer's pilgrimage to the Marian shrine of Rocamadour which contains a wooden Black Madonna. Black Madonnas are thought to be related to pre-Christian Earth Goddess traditions. Their dark skin, the colour of fertile earth, is associated with feminine sexual power and an archetypal Earth Mother who presides over both fertility and death.
The ensemble performed on three consecutive nights to three different audiences. The unedited recording documented here was recorded directly to DAT on the second night and contains no overdubs or post-production. It was the intention of the artists to preserve the spiritual nature of the original work, to harness the sacred and cosmic, whilst recontextualising the sound.
"I was really struck by the careful dismantling of the original music. Like handling an ancient vase or something. It was like watching a tight-rope walker – the perfect balance between unpicking the classical and reassembling it as something totally contemporary." – Dominic Gray, Opera North
Dominic Gray, Lumen, Chris Gladwin, Dave Corbett, George Rogers and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Also thanks to the University of Lincolnshire & Humberside for the use of their Kyma sound design system.
June 14, 2007 Subject:
Sacrosanct Sound Art
Taking a classic work of religious music, selecting pieces of it, manipulating those parts, and then putting those processed pieces back together again so that it sounds like something new but yet still retains the spiritual theme of the original work would be a bold and challenging task for just one person. With this new interpretation of “Litanies à la Vierge Noir”, however, we have six artists working independently for the most part that somehow manage to take the piece well beyond their commission.
A synopsis of the concept behind this modern live interpretation of Francis Poulenc’s 1936 religious organ and choral work “Litanies à la Vierge Noir (Litany to the Black Madonna)” reads something like this:
Six friends (Jim Brouwer, Paul Emery, Joe Gilmore, Tom Knapp, Ed Martin & Alex Peverett) involved in making music and video art were commissioned by Opera North to dismantle and reassemble a classic piece of religious music into a contemporary experimental work using sound editing/processing tools while at the same time preserving the sacrosanct mood of the original work. The results of their efforts were then presented in a series of three live, unrehearsed, improvised performances.
Commenting about this commission in the broadest sense, Joe Gilmore told me: “Our main objective was to produce music that would instill a sense of the cosmic.” In the liner notes we read this statement: “It was the intention of the artists to preserve the spiritual nature of the original work, to harness the sacred and cosmic, whilst recontextualising the sound.”
I’ve listened to “Poulenc” a dozen or so times now and have found that I enjoy it most at night, alone, sitting outside on my back patio, under a starry sky. I can appreciate it on two levels. On one level, it’s a beautiful, extended piece of abstract sound art that can be enjoyed just for the sounds without regards to any meanings that might be attached to those sounds. For example, listen to the unhurried, focused, steadily intensifying, layering of sounds evolving during the first thirteen minutes that carry with it a deep, spacious quality. On another level, I can savor the religious overtones as significant portions of it do reveal a cosmic or spiritual ambiance. [Alex Peverett got it right when he wrote in an email to me that “both words are very loaded for anyone who hears them and we all have different notions of how these ideas may be brought forward through different art forms.”] For instance, heading towards the thirteen minute mark, the previous evolving layer of sounds begins to dissolve, and then (13:15) a dense, harmonious, ethereal ambiance erupts (that some might describe as spiritual or even angelic), rising above a dissonant background.
A listener with strong religious feelings will probably sense a spiritual/sacred quality while one who doesn’t may not sense anything sacrosanct at all about this work, but he/she will still be affected to some degree by the essence of the religious instrumentation - the organ chords and the choral voices (even though they‘ve been repositioned and reshaped) - and can appreciate the sounds in a different way.
Note: Thanks are extended to Joe Gilmore and Alex Peverett (the duo Vend) who graciously took the time to provide me additional details about the piece and the performance contained in the text that follows.
Fully appreciating a work like this contemporary interpretation of Francis Poulenc’s “Litanies à la Vierge Noir” requires more than just listening. The original source is fairly easy to understand both from a technical standpoint and conceptually. It’s a structured composition with straightforward instrumentation (organ and voice) and definite inspiration (religious experience). This isn’t the case with the interpretation. Here we have six artists individually cutting slices of sound from the original work, processing them, and then storing them as sound files to be used later during the improvised performances that will also include some random, real-time processing. Knowing some of the particulars involved in its creation and of the performance are important.
Alex provided a nice summary of the technical details of this recording:
"We each took the original recording and selected different parts of the recording to use as source material. From these sections we were to reprocess and reedit the original in anyway we liked as long as we felt that the new soundfiles we created were in keeping with the atmosphere and ideas of the original. Some of did use simpler chop and paste of parts of the soundfiles. This sounds a little basic, but can be very rewarding with the right approach. Other members had more complex approaches, combining and morphing together sections of the sound to create new textures. Anyway [...] we all came up with a new selection of textures and soundfiles to be used in the performances."
Joe expanded on this saying:
"Each artist took the recording and began working with it in their own way. Jim and I spent several days in Hull at the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside using Kyma, a powerful sound design tool. We used various combinations of real-time granular synthesis and time/frequency audio morphing on vocal and organ samples. The others used different approaches, processing sounds in Pure Data, Max/MSP and Supercollider."
Concerning the performances themselves, Joe said: “We improvised the three sets using the sound files and some real-time dsp and generative/algorithmic patches, mainly using Max/MSP, Pd etc.” and that “We were incredibly focused on all three nights and still when I listen today it's hard to believe there were six people involved.” Alex added: "It was quite important for me to not have too many options during the performance. I wanted more time to focus on the sound rather than the process. So I built a simple patch to replay my soundfiles with a variety of semi-algorithmic ways of playing and processing the soundfiles live. The important theme of the improvisation was the slow moving layering together of all our sounds and also focus."
An interesting side note is that this particular recording is the second of three performed on consecutive evenings. The first was to an invited audience and the others to opera audiences. There were no rehearsals and the only thing planned ahead of time was a general theme. Recordings of the other performance exist including an extended three-hour long set performed on the first night. All performances were recorded directly to digital audio tape without any post-production.
If you haven't listened to this recording yet or if you've listened but didn't fully grasp its significance, set aside forty minutes some starry evening and do so - listen in solitude, without interruption. I can only hope that the two remaining unreleased recordings will someday be heard.
June 2, 2007 Subject:
What an great listening experience! Big compliments to the Opera North for making this happen. And another big one to CON-V (the best net label there is) for letting us take part in this exciting soundjourney. Absolutely amazing!